Saint Cellach of Armagh, Confessor

April 1

Today is the feast day of Saint Cellach of Armagh.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Cellach (Ceilach, Celestinus, Celsus, Keilach, Kelly) was born in 1080.  He was Son of Áed mac Máele Ísu meic Amalgada. He belonged to a powerful local family, the Clann Sínaigh, which controlled what was then the hereditary lay abbacy of Armagh. In this system the lay coarb (that is, “successor” of some saint, in this case of St Patrick), was also erenagh (or, administrator), in this case of Armagh. That was the ecclesiastical structure in Ireland at that time. Bishops and priests seem to have had little influence and were probably under the control of these lay abbots. In 1091 Cellach inherited the title of coarb and was then the effective erenagh of Armagh.

Both Lanfranc and Anselm had written to the O’Brien kings of Munster, Turlough and Muircheartach, urging a change to the lay dominance of the coarb and erenagh system. The First Synod of Cashel (1101) presided over by King Muircheartach Ó Briain introduced this reform to Ireland. From the clergy side the reform was led by Maol Muire Ó Dunáin, bishop of Meath, who probably visited Rome and was appointed papal legate to Ireland by Pope Paschal II (1099-1117). This synod enacted decrees against lay investiture and against simony: it also laid down that no layman could be an erenagh and that no erenagh could have a wife

In line with this reform Cellach of Armagh, a man of learning and piety, not yet married, made the courageous decision to become a priest. In 1106 Maol Muire Ó Dunáin ordained him bishop, probably somewhere in Munster. At the Synod of Rathbreasail (probably in the parish of Drom & Inch – north Tipperary) in 1111, at which Cellach was present, the reforms of Cashel were made nationwide and the whole country was divided into formal dioceses with Cashel and Armagh as the two archbishoprics.

Meanwhile, Saint Cellach persuaded Malachy that he must assume the vacant See of Connor, which he did in 1124. Archbishop Cellach consecrated him. Things went well here for Bishop Saint Malachy and he was able to govern the Church in relative peace while living like a monk in abject poverty. Primate Cellach, on the other hand, was dealing with rampant insubordination and corruption. The diocese of Armagh was the worst in all Ireland. He knew, when he was laid down by a mortal illness, that only Malachy could succeed in the work of reform in this most important See. In 1129, in this final illness, in fact while on his deathbed, he made it known and ordered it published that he had chosen Bishop Malachy to succeed him. It was to be the end of lay investiture for Armagh. Saint Cellach would be the last to inherit the See and the one who put an end to the abuse with the execution of his death will.

That would not happen for three more years. Maurice MacDonald, heir to the Primacy,  refused to recognize Malachy’s election and ruled the See of Armagh by usurpation for the next two years. The bishop-monk of Conner was utterly reluctant to engage in any conflict, even though he knew the good Archbishop Cellach had chosen him for successor. Not even a celestial vision and an army of supporters could convince the great saint that he had an obligation before God and Saint Patrick to go and govern the Church of Armagh.

Knowing that his own family would try to regain control of Armagh when he died, Cellach named Malachy as his successor as bishop there, sending him his crozier (bacall) in token. In 1129 while visiting Munster, Cellach died at Ardpatrick and was buried in Lismore at his own request. Malachy did indeed have difficulties establishing control as bishop. But he was able to have Giolla Mac Liag, abbot of Derry, installed and accepted as effective bishop and administrator of Armagh, while he himself returned to the monastery of Bangor. Malachy then consecrated a bishop for Connor diocese, keeping Down for himself.

Image: Cellach of Armagh, artist: Titian, circa 1520. (4)

Research by REGINA Staff


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